“Don’t expect logic,” Princely said on day one. “There are only lines on the road because there was spare paint.”
The Rickshaw Challenge: Mumbai Xpress is a 14 day, 2000km trip across India on what is essentially a glorified lawnmower. Organised by the Travel Scientists, this was to be our most challenging adventure yet. And we’ve been to North Korea.
For those interested in a more literal rundown of the shenanigans, below is a journal of the each day’s events as written at the time. I’ve included the days featured in part one of the video series.
Day 1 & 2: Training in Mumbai
Having picked up our Rickshaw Challenge pack, which included a branded baseball cap and shirt, notepad, race guide and a tool kit, we met with Princely and his team in the Sun’n’Sand Hotel, which is, conveniently, where are were staying.
Princely gave us an overview of what we can expect over the next 14 days and while excited by the prospect of our adventure, I’m questioning if I’ve actually made a huge mistake in taking on something that we’re wildly underprepared for.
After the briefing we headed for the Women’s University, located around 1km from the hotel, where we were introduced to our ride for the next two weeks.
After showing us how to actually operate the rickshaw, we were given our real test – driving them. Although there were a few failed starts and a little over revving here and there, we didn’t crash and didn’t tip it over. A positive start.
We had to complete a mini challenge of having to swap driver and start the rickshaw under 10 seconds. I didn’t realise our test had started until Princely had already counted to 3 but, thankfully, we managed to complete the test with a second or two to spare.
The challenge turned out to be worthwhile as on the drive back to the hotel afterwards, I stalled five times. The pressure and frustration increased every time as the beeping seemed to get louder and the staring of passers-by more intense.
We did eventually make it back to the hotel though, filling the fuel tank along the way, making sure to get the ratio of 50ml of oil to 1l of petrol right. Can’t beat a good auld two stroke engine.
That night, the group of 25 headed out for food and beers. All in all not a bad start.
Our only challenge for day two was to visit one of the local malls. Feeling hungover, tired and suffering a little “Delhi Belly,” we did the bare minimum and arrived at the mall early afternoon. We picked up our breakfast – McDonald’s fries.
Later in the day, we tried to hunt down a fancy dress costume, as we’d get extra points during the Challenge for dressing up.
Having failed to find one ourselves, we asked the hotel reception where the closest costume shop was. This didn’t pan out well, however, as the receptionist sent us in the direction of a shop selling swimming costumes. We’ve given up on the idea for now.
Day 3: Mumbai to Alibag
Distance: 105 km / Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 44 minutes.
Our first full day of driving and while not an ideal start, it went relatively smoothly.
Totalling around 100km, we checked Google Maps for a rough time estimate – 2hrs and 44mins. Seems reasonable… if you’re driving a car, that is.
It being a rickshaw, and us two novices at the helm, we pitched our pace between walking and driving, totalling a seven hour drive. Just what you want on your first day.
The morning began with somewhat of a panic as we understood the briefing was at 8:30am. It was, in fact, at 8am.
To make matters worse, we actually finished breakfast at around 8am, walked past the briefing and up to our room, where we finished packing and brushed our teeth.
When we got downstairs, some people had already left and the ceremonial waving of the start flag was already underway.
Feeling a little disappointed for missing the official start, it was worsened by the fact that the monsoon rains had begun to fall and we’d never driven in the rain, never mind this heavy downpour seemingly coming at us in every direction.
With the seven hour estimated drive time, this was not a good start but we soldiered on.
The roads, for a good 50% of the 100km journey, were shit. Simple as. I mean, it was just stones, gravel and potholes. You’d see better roads in Aleppo.
Much to our surprise, we had wildly overestimated the travel time, arriving at our hotel at around 1.30pm.
Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 44 minutes.
Reality: 4 hours, 48 minutes.
Start time: 08:40, Finish time: 13:28
Day 4: Alibag to Pune
Distance: 141km / Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
“This is our pre-marriage course,” Kathy said, as day four tested our relationship.
We actually made the morning briefing and set off on time, the day started off swimmingly. In fact, it was relatively straight forward up until Khopoli, around 60km in.
This is where we had our first two challenges – photograph a reservoir and a temple, which happened to be beside each other. With the help of some very helpful locals, these were easy tasks and we ticked both off the list.
Everything changed after that though.
In an attempt to avoid the Expressway, on which it was illegal to drive and something we’d been warned against, we tried to double back to the Highway, which we could drive on. This was our first mistake.
While our offline India map seems good so far, it seemingly can’t distinguish between a road and a laneway which wouldn’t swing a cat in… as we learned.
Routing us back through Khapoli, we turned left into a lane a little wider than the shaw itself.
The lane ran past a school, which would have been fine if classes hadn’t just finished for the day. There were hundreds of children all around us, aged from around four upwards.
Children and parents alike thought we were hilarious and couldn’t stop staring and laughing. While a green and red shaw was weird, the fact it was being driven by two white people added to the hilarity for them.
On top of this, people seemed very surprised by the fact that Kathy was driving, with many stopping in their tracks to have a good stare.
With such a sight to behold, many people just didn’t move out of the way, making it even harder for us to navigate the lane without running over a child.
Having stalled several times as kids swarmed the rickshaw, we eventually got through only to realise we had missed a turn.
The lane was too narrow to do a u-turn, as well as the fact there was a drain on one side, just hoping we’d fall in. We had no other choice but to turn the shaw manually. We hopped out.
In the process of pushing it around, of course, we rolled the rickshaw over Kathy’s foot. Tears followed. Thankfully, there were no injuries.
Having wasted forty minutes trying to find the highway, almost killing several children in the process, we ditched the legalities and headed for the Expressway.
The drive to it, of course, was laborious.
Monsoon rains returned and there was a steep mountain road to climb to reach the Expressway. It was during this ascent that we realised our second gear didn’t work. First gear it was. For several miles.
As soon as we hit the Expressway, a police officer whistled us to pull in. I did so. This was just what we needed.
I played stupid and he played angry.
I presumed the conversation would ultimately end with money exchanging hands, but as he angrily shouted at me (presumably for driving onto the Expressway), I just repeatedly said “Pune” and pointed into the distance.
Surprisingly, it worked. No money was asked for and I was let onto the Expressway, although he did say I needed to get off after around 6km.
Leaving the cars and trucks behind on the Expressway (still in the pouring rain), we exited at Khandala, the scene of our next problem.
Having wasted fuel on our self imposed diversion, plus the strenuous mountain ascent, I pulled in to check our petrol levels (we didn’t have a fuel gauge).
We had 3 litres left, which was good news. The bad news, however, was when I tried to restart the rickshaw, I pulled the clutch hard and a loud bang followed. Bollix.
With not a megg from the engine, and the clutch clearly broken, a subdued atmosphere descended on the rickshaw. Considering the day’s previous turmoils, this had to happen now.
We were near a restaurant so I walked in to ask where I might find a mechanic, stupidly hopeful there was one nearby.
“Four kilometres,” the waiter responded to my query. Ah ya, makes sense – why would they be close?
Returning to the shaw, I tried to ring Princely to inform him of our mechanical issue and to send the service team.
No credit. FML.
With no way to contact Princely, the thought of staying in Khandala for the night seemed like a likely outcome. Then I spotted a local nearby having a fag. Worth a shot.
A civil engineer with fluent English. Some luck, at last.
Oddly, he reminded me of my brother-in-law, Ciaran, who is also an engineer (and speaks fluent English).
I used his phone to ring Princely – the service team would ring me back with an ETA.
In the meantime, I told Indian Ciaran what we were doing (he thought we were crazy) and his driver found us a mechanic. Turns out there was one across the road the whole time. He took a look at the rickshaw. He couldn’t fix it but his brother probably could. He gave him a call – he’d be 15 minutes.
At that moment, the service team rang. They’d be 15 minutes. Whoever got here first would be fixing the rickshaw.
The Rickshaw Challenge service team arrived first so we bid farewell to Indian Ciaran, his driver, and cancelled the other mechanic.
The guys had the rickshaw fixed in no time – a new clutch cable was installed and some plastic piece holding it in place.
Thankfully, we only had around 40km to go until we got to Pune… although not without one last hiccup.
Having followed the GPS to the door of the hotel, it turned out we had been given the wrong address during the morning briefing.
With no mobile data and only an offline map to guide us, I was able to find the road the hotel was located on but couldn’t pinpoint the building itself. We drove a few hundred meters along the road, I wasn’t in the mood for driving in circles in the hope of spotting the hotel sign. I pulled up and asked a local shopkeeper.
He stared at the handwritten address for a moment – I thought more bad news beckoned.
He pointed across the road. It was right there – “Citrus Hotel” read the sign atop the building. At last.
A quick u-turn and we pulled up outside. A sigh of relief followed, we were here… finally.
We thought we’d be last but, surprisingly, five or six teams had yet to arrive.
We checked in. Food, beer and rum followed.
Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Reality: 8 hours, 18 minutes.
Start Time: 08:21, Finish Time: 17:03
Day 5: Pune to Mahabaleshwar
Distance: 121km, Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 37 minutes
While today’s distance wasn’t that bad, the roads were the worst so far.
Before leaving Pune, we had to visit the Agha Khan Palace as part of our challenge but we missed the entrance as our GPS directed us to a second gate, which was firmly shut.
The only way to get back to the gate without having to do a major loop was to drive the wrong way up the road, against the four lanes of traffic.
While mulling over our options, we pulled over for chai, completing another of the day’s challenged in the process. A local who approached us for a chat informed me that there was nothing wrong with driving the wrong way against the traffic as people did it the hold time. Seemed legit.
We took this random man’s advice and ventured back to the gate. Nobody seemed that bothered by what we were doing and we didn’t crash. I’d imagine we’ll be doing this more often.
After leaving the Palace, we set off for Panchgani, just outside Mahabaleshwar.
Traffic was certainly the craziest we’ve encountered yet. it really highlighted the fact that if there’s a space, someone will take it, regardless of whether their vehicle will fit. Apart from a couple of stalls, we navigated the traffic well and didn’t hit anyone, which is always a bonus.
During the morning briefing, Princely noted that the last 40km or so was very bad road but we weren’t prepared for this. This was mountainous terrain more fit for a quad bike, not this glorified lawnmower.
Although the distance was short enough, the steepness of the roads meant it took us hours to reach our hotel.
As though the hills weren’t bad enough, when we within around 2km of the hotel, the road turned into a dirt track on the side of a mountain. It reminded me of when Top Gear did the Death Road in Bolivia.
The toad was so bad in parts that we thought we were going the wrong way as this seemed like an unlikely location for a hotel.
With sharp corners aplenty and the occasional cow, it felt, at times, like we’d tip off the cliff’s edge. Kathy suggested at she just walk as it didn’t seem that safe. We preserved though as we needed to be at the hotel before nightfall. We couldn’t risk traversing these roads in the dark.
Our GPS hadn’t failed us, thankfully, and the hotel eventually came into sight.
Our nerves were shot but nothing some food and a few Kingfisher beers wouldn’t take care of.
Google Map Estimate: 2 hours, 37 minutes.
Reality: 9 hours, 34 minutes.
Start Time: 08:18, Finish Time: 17:52